What does a jazz pianist need to know?

Playing jazz piano is one of those scary mysteries that can keep people from exploring and excelling.  Whether you are a classically trained pianist who is “jazz curious”, a jazz vocalist who wants to develop some useful keyboard skills or an educator who needs jazz training in order to support their students, it can really seem like a huge mountain to climb.  This blog post is meant to break down the various skills and knowledge base required to become a confident jazz pianist.

Jazz Pianist Bud Powell

I started classical piano lessons as a child and discovered jazz at age 15.  My first lessons were with my high school band director, a saxophonist who taught me everything he knew from 2 semesters of mandatory piano class during his undergrad.  I attended York University in Toronto with a BFA in Jazz Piano and then went to the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in NYC for my Master’s in jazz piano performance.  I have since taught hundreds of people to play jazz piano, teaching for 8 summers at the New York Summer Music Festival, teaching at several colleges, and running a busy private studio.  After all these years, I have been able to formulate a method for teaching jazz piano that is clear, direct and masterfully effective for

Jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams

students of all imaginable skill levels.  Many of my students are professional jazz singers who have been able to take gigs singing and playing the piano, because my method is so efficient and user friendly.

So, what does a jazz pianist need to know?

1.  How to read a lead sheet.  A lead sheet is a form of abbreviated sheet music.  (Show an example). Instead of having all of the music fully notated, a lead sheet consists of the melody, chord symbols and sometimes, the lyrics as well.  Lead sheets provide the general structure of a song – the form, the melody and the harmony, but also leave room for interpretation and improvisation.  In order to play from a lead sheet, you need to be able to play chord symbols.  (Learning chord symbols is always my first step when teaching jazz piano!)

Jazz pianist Bill Evans

2.  How to walk a bass line. Part of the fun of playing jazz piano is that we can replicate what an entire jazz band is doing.  For this reason, I always teach everyone how to walk a bass line in their left hand.  The “walking bass” consists of playing the chord tones in quarter notes to lay down a rhythmic and harmonic foundation.  Add the right hand playing chords and you have the starts of a jazz rhythm section sound!

The unforgettable Thelonious Monk.

3.  How to play chord voicings. Chord voicings are often misunderstood, because they are not just inversions of chords.  Voicings are actually ways of implying the harmony rather than playing the whole chords and we choose certain notes that represent the chords and provide different qualities of sound.  I always teach my students a simple strategy that we build on to create a huge library of authentic jazz piano voicings.

4.  Comping is the rhythmic way we play chords or voicings.  Short for “accompanying”, we learn a variety of comping figures that can be mixed and matched to create a rhythmic accompaniment for the melody and improvised solos.  Once you have mastered several figures, it is easy to improvise the comping based on what is happening in the song.

Jazz legend Oscar Peterson

5.  Improvisation.  This is usually the concept that terrifies people about jazz and is often the reason people won’t even attempt to play it.  When you think about improvisation, you might be frightened by the prospect of creating something out of nothing.  (Where do you even start??). The good news is that there is a great way to learn how by improvising on one simple concept at a time.  Improvising on chord tones, using one rhythmic idea, or even just paraphrasing the melody is a way to get started without being overwhelmed.

6. Jazz Styles. Jazz music includes a variety of styles, including ballads, medium swing tunes, jazz standards, blues and grooves like Bossa Nova and Afro-Latin.  Each of these styles utilizes a different approach, including different bass lines, comping figures and even approaches to improvisation.

Jazz Pianist Wynton Kelly and his trio

7. The great jazz pianists. In order to expand as a jazz pianist, you need to be listening to the great masters including Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams and Bill Evans.  Jazz is an aural tradition, which means to need to hear it to really get the music into your ears.  There are so many wonderful resources to listen to great jazz and discover your favorites.

Learning jazz piano is such an exciting and enriching journey and one that I think every piano should take.  You don’t need to become a jazz master to reap the benefits of this incredible music, but the skills you gain from learning it will fill your ears with new sounds and empower your hands to play with a new fluidity.


Want to learn jazz piano?  Check out my online course Jazz Piano Accompaniment, which teaches you everything I list in this blog post.

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